Dr. Richard B. Fratianne retired 11 years ago, but he still drives to the Comprehensive Burn Center at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland twice a week.
Fratianne was the director of the burn center from its founding in 1969 until he retired in 2002. Upon his retirement, he promised his patients — some whose bodies are more than 50 percent covered in scars — that he would never abandon them.
“I haven’t missed a beat yet,” he said. “I’ll go as long as I can.”
Fratianne speaks at today’s Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy about the dehumanizing effects of a burn injury and what it takes to rebuild both the outside as well as the inside of the body.
A burn is an incurable disease, he said. Patients will never look the way they used to and must deal with a society who might tease or ostracize them for their scars.
After healing a patient’s skin, Fratianne’s challenge is to a heal the person’s sense of self-worth. Burns occur from the outside in, he said, but recovery occurs from the inside out.
He constructed a team at the burn center that is focused on healing patients on the inside after their wounds have improved. His staff needs to be not only competent, he said, but also compassionate.
“It isn’t only what you do,” he said. “It’s how you do it. And that is motivated by why you do it.”
Fratianne is a devout Christian who believes all faiths share a goal of inner peace and happiness.
His patients can’t always see a future for themselves, but he can. And if they are to share his hope, he must be earnest in his efforts.
“The only way I can do that is to have true empathy and compassion,” Fratianne said.
The center’s aftercare program includes support meetings and retreats — once a year for adults and twice a year for kids — to help patients regain their sense of self-worth long after their scars have healed.
He relates the struggle of a burn victim to the formation of butterflies that begin as ugly worms. To escape from their cocoons, they must crawl through tiny openings that force fluid into their wings, allowing them to fly. Fratianne hopes that by the end of the healing process, his patients can liken themselves to a beautiful, transformed butterfly.
Some patients feel that the burn center has changed them in such a positive way that they celebrate “rebirthdays” on the anniversary of their burns. If they hadn’t been burned, Fratianne explained, they wouldn’t have come to their new self-awareness.
“Once they reach a point of interior strength and healing that they no longer define themselves as a burn patient, but define themselves in light of all the rest of their personhood,” he said, “now they become a survivor.”